Friday, January 20, 2012



R&B legend Etta James died today after months of battling, among other things, leukemia. I have long wanted to write this post about her, but there was always something more important, other demands on my time, or something else, doubtless relatively trivial, that stopped me from writing it. But news of her death not only prompted this writing, but convinced me that if I didn’t write it now, I probably never would.

Etta James is perhaps best known for her mega-hit “At Last.” “At Last” is indeed a great tune, a classic tune, long a favorite of jazz aficionados but brought into the popular lexicon by a spate of Jaguar commercials a few years ago. But “At Last,” for all its mellifluous splendor, is quite atypical of the work of Ms. James, who was, at her heart, a classic R&B singer. While I am a big fan of “At Last,” I much prefer Ms. James version of “Roll With Me Henry” and also like “Tell Mama,” which very loyal readers will remember from an edition of the Pontificator’s predecessor, the Insightful Weekly Commentary. Both are more in line with Ms. James’ style. I also, almost as a digression, highly recommend “Record Row, Cradle of Rhythm and Blues” a documentary about the music business on the ten blocks between Roosevelt and Cermak Roads on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, which Etta James so masterfully narrated. If you like R&B, or just like history, this PBS documentary is well worth your time.

But it is “At Last” that is the subject of this commentary. You will remember that, at President Obama’s post-inaugural festivities, “At Last,” which, in keeping with Mr. Obama’s superficiality, was appropriate for the occasion only for its title, was the featured tune, the tune to which Mr. and Mrs. Obama danced their inaugural dance, if you will. But who performed this rhapsodic classic for the supposed champion of the downtrodden who was just moving into the White House? Was it the song’s original singer, who had a tough life and was still battling demons on a number of fronts, who actually lived the blues and who could have badly used a break at the time? No. It was someone named Beyonce who apparently had forgotten, or lost, her last name and who, given the rapid degeneration of culture in this country, had become something of a big star who needed no help whatsoever promoting her career as a so-called singer. That perhaps little bit of hypocrisy has stuck in my craw ever since that night. How can you try to convince everybody that you are the champion of the downtrodden and then deny Ms. James, a personification of the downtrodden and a genuine talent, a big chance to resurrect her career by having a poseur, a Hollywood fabrication, perform Ms. James’ big hit at the White House? What a slap in the face!

You will also recall that Ms. James did not take too kindly to the snub delivered her by the new occupants of the White House, complaining that she, not Beyonce, should have performed her song at the White House and making some very salient, and right on the mark, comments about Beyonce’s lack of talent. But Ms. James quickly backed down after pressure from who knows where. Or maybe Ms. James was too classy to make too much of an issue of the kick in the chops that the Obamas had just delivered her.

Some might exonerate the President and his wife. Surely, they will argue, the Obamas had nothing to do with planning the inaugural festivities; there were more important things on their plate. But given the micromanagement that pervades the President’s political operations, it’s hard to believe that the President, or someone very close to him, who had spent years crafting the President’s Potemkin image as a champion of the working class and the have-nots, did not make the decision that “At Last” would be the featured song at his inauguration. On the other hand, it is easy to believe that this crew knew nothing of Etta James, that its cultural awareness is no deeper, chronologically or otherwise, than the hyper-shallow swill served up by the likes of the person called Beyonce and the techno-drivel she strives so mightily to “sing” over. So maybe this was indeed an innocent mistake by the innocents who occupy the White House.

Some might argue that I am only making an issue of this because I have political and philosophical differences with Mr. Obama. Others, probably from the opposite side of the political spectrum, might argue that there is plenty in the Obama administration about which to make an issue without touching on such relative trivia as who sang at his inaugural festivities.

I would counter with two points. First, and perhaps again, the utter hypocrisy of claiming to be such a champion of those who are hurting while figuratively spitting in the face of a woman who was indeed hurting but whose career could have been resurrected, and who could have done marvelous things, with just a small boost from the President, has bothered me since the President’s inauguration.

Second, I would cite the example of Cook County Commissioner Jerry “Iceman” Butler, who also, by the way, played a prominent role in the aforementioned “Record Row” PBS documentary. Mr. Butler and Mr. Obama share more than a few things. Both are liberal Democrats who made the south side of the world’s greatest city their homes. Both fashioned political careers in Chicago by accommodating and making their peace with, while not being real, or at least important, parts (despite what commentators on the Right will tell you about President Obama) of what is known as the Chicago Machine. Further, and relevant only for this post, I have at least as many political differences with Mr. Butler as I have with Mr. Obama,

But there are two key differences between Mr. Butler and Mr. Obama. First, Mr. Butler had a life before he entered politics; he was one of, if not THE, greatest R&B singers of all time, with hits too numerous to either count or enumerate. He also is the source of a great quote I use in all of the Finance courses I teach. When explaining how he lost the fortune he had made in the music business as a very young man, the Iceman explained “Money doesn’t come with instructions.” So he knows something of the world. Second, Mr. Butler exudes class. I once had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Butler. While the details of the meeting are grist for another post, for purposes of this post, I would only note that Mr. Butler is one gracious, almost courtly, individual. This quality comes out, or doesn’t, in a politician when he is dealing with someone who can do him absolutely no good, but I digress.

One of the manifestations of Mr. Butler’s class is the way he treated his former duet partner of the early ‘60s, Betty Everett, who was also the subject of a long ago post in the Insightful Weekly Commentary. Ms. Everett is perhaps best known for “It’s In His Kiss,” which was shamelessly and screechingly covered as “The Shoop-Shoop Song” (ugh!) by another star who apparently has forgotten her last name, Cher, just as “At Last” was covered (stolen, really) by similarly single-named Beyonce. But Ms. Everett’s best work was done with Mr. Butler, most notably that greatest of all love ballads “Let It Be Me,” but also “Smile” and “Ain’t That Loving You Baby.”

Ms. Everett, while not plagued by the same demons as Ms. James, did see her career slide downhill as the ‘60s progressed. She eventually found herself living with her sister in Beloit, Wisconsin, appearing now and again and working at documenting the history of R&B at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. But Mr. Butler never forgot his former partner, including her whenever she needed, or wanted, including in his later performances. In fact, as noted in the IWC commentary I wrote on the occasion of her death, Ms. Everett appeared with the Iceman, only months before here death, on one of the PBS Doo Wop specials Mr. Butler hosted. The two sang “Let It Be Me.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, at least not in the Quinn house.

Unfortunately, Etta James, a contemporary of Ms. Everett and a fellow troubadour of the strata of society Mr. Obama professes to represent, received no such treatment from the self-proclaimed champion of the downtrodden in the White House.


Tom said...

Wonderful Mark.

The Pontificator said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Tom. Try to find some time to check out "Record Row;" you will really enjoy it.